The day we faced down the Phelps gang

When thinking of people who have no purpose on earth but to hate and harm–real, true emotional terrorists–everyone but about fifty or so Americans agrees that Fred Phelps and his gang take the cake. Out of respect for my Christian friends, I’m not going to dignify the Phelps gang by calling them a Baptist church except in quotes (and tags). As much pain and indoctrination as real Baptists have inflicted on me in life while I was defenseless, even those involved in those abuses would not approve of the Phelps gang. Thus, I’m not cooperating with fake ‘Baptists’ in the effort to steal the title of authentic Baptists. I may not agree with much of anything that comes from the latter’s ecclesiastical leadership, but when it comes to Phelps, I’m okay singing a stanza of Onward Christian Soldiers with the real ones. (With my atrocious singing voice, they may not think of it as much of a joyful noise.)

Being a non-Christian here is actually pretty painless, because the Tri-Cities live by a quiet ethic of staying out of your face. It’s the same way with regard to homosexuality. If one doesn’t wash everyone’s face in one’s difference, and simply lives one’s life in peace, one is left in peace here. My gay, pagan and gay pagan friends living in other states tell me I shouldn’t take that for granted, and I believe them.

On 2 Feb 2007, Marine SGT Travis Pfister of Richland, WA died in Iraq. Always sad, but also an ever-present part of war. A memorial service was scheduled in early March for SGT Pfister at the TRAC (a trade show and expo center) in Pasco, to which one could presume his family, friends, and supportive community members might join in honoring his life and sacrifice. The Phelps gang announced that they were sending a picket.

Where there is a Phelps gang visit, counter-protests appear. For this one, attendance was triply obligatory. Phelps’s gang lives in my home state, in gutless Topeka which snivels and cowers before its barratry rather than taking concerted action to encourage them to find a new state. A civilized Kansan thus had to represent. Considering how many of my good friends are gayer than the 90s, I couldn’t look them in the eyes if I didn’t show up. I’m no patriot, but I respect service and sacrifice, and I don’t appreciate anyone–especially outside thugs–showing up to offend the family of someone who died keeping his oath of service. Deb, of course, was as dead set on attending as I.

We had company.

It was a pretty spring day, though I’m sure it didn’t feel springy for those who came to mourn. The law in Washington is that protests may not approach within 500′ of a funeral. The Pasco Police decided to confine the Phelps gang to a vacant lot across the street from the TRAC, well away from the main entrance and avenue of approach for mourners. A thin line of police officers manned the street with obvious reluctance, to prevent the crowd from physically tearing the Phelps gang to pieces. The air was filled with the sound of big motorcycles, for the Patriot Guard Riders had shown up with about 140 bikes. In most situations, to put it mildly, I am not a motorcycle enthusiast. For that day, I was happy to hear the rumbling sound. This organization travels around organizing counter-protests where necessary, and presumably doing other things associated with veterans’ causes. They do add a sense of muscle to the event, just by looking the way they look, not that we needed extra muscle. There were about two thousand people there, and it was a little difficult to get up the front of the police line. There was no way the family and attendees could see the protesters unless they worked at it. There was no way they could fail to see the rest of us, as there was barely room for cars to get around in the parking lot.

Across from us on the vacant lot were five pathetic individuals. I only remember a wild-haired adult male and a little girl. They were holding up their usual disrespectful signs, insulting military service, Christianity and homosexuals. What struck me was the great diversity of the crowd, a full representation of the Tri-Cities. Black, Hispanic, Asian, white; male, female, somewhere in between; straight, gay, still not sure; old, young, middle-aged; atheist, evangelical, Catholic, pagan, Mormon, Unitarian, agnostic; veteran, union, average joe or jane. At last, something we could all agree on and get together about! I am not a person for whom a sense of belonging or membership comes easily. I truly felt like part of the Tri-Cities that day, and proud to be so. We were supposed to turn our backs to them, or at least the Patriot Guard Riders tried to get us to, but not everyone did. I guess that’s the train wreck factor: it’s hard to look away.

In case you have never seen a Phelps gang protest, it works like this. They only send a small group (they’re a busy bunch, with a lot of people to offend nationwide). Their goal is to get attacked, or have some other event happen that will get them media time. If they do not get it, they lose. So they keep ratcheting up the outrage, in order to see what they can provoke, with increasingly offensive yells and signs. At the end, they had the little girl angrily stomp a U.S. flag into the dirt, which I gather is their ultimate step: if that doesn’t get them assaulted, nothing will. In this case, it didn’t. When it becomes obvious they won’t get what they came for, they leave. They may even have been gone before the family arrived at the memorial, which would be an added bonus. I think four squad cars of Franklin County Deputies escorted the Phelps gang’s car to the county line, off to whatever mission of antipathy awaited them next.

On the way home, I wondered if we’d done any good. I decided that we had. We couldn’t prevent the Phelps gang from doing what they did, but to whatever degree knowing of their presence made it worse for the family, perhaps a 400:1 support:hate ratio made it more bearable for the bereaved. It had gotten us all together, in all our different forms and ways of being and living, in good spirits. I didn’t see anyone showing disrespect for the police, who were doing a necessary and unpleasant job in a professional manner, and deserved cooperation from the good guys and gals. It must have been a moving experience for the gay counter-protesters, seeing so many of their neighbors so forcefully rejecting homophobia–which, after all, is the whole basis for this Phelps crap.

If nothing else, at least a few people learned that the Phelps gang is not representative of Kansas or Kansans. The heavy-bearded character in the KU t-shirt, looking like Gimli the Dwarf after a growth spurt, had something to say about that.

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3 thoughts on “The day we faced down the Phelps gang”

  1. Good on you.
    I’m not sure if the Phelps gang travels incognito now because not too long ago, there was an article in the local rag that folks around here refused to serve any of them when they were traveling. Couldn’t get gas on the turnpike, no meals at McDonald’s much less a local diner. Just flat out refused and didn’t care when threatened with lawsuits touting religious discrimination.
    What makes me want to puke is their parading children and indoctrinating them with this hate. As far as I’m concerned, Phelps gang is no better than the neo-nazis.

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    1. They’re arguably worse than the neo-Nazis. The neo-Nazis only commit a hate crime once in a while. These people commit them almost every day. I fault Topeka, though, for cowering, and the legal profession of the state of Kansas for not forming a consortium to stand behind anyone they sue. If people are misusing the law to enable abuse, and the supposedly good side of the law does nothing, then we have the right to look coldly upon them.

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